Second #1922, 32:02, Image © Studio Canal
We’re no longer trapped in Anna Schmidt’s apartment with a bombardment of police officers, but Anna’s nightmare continues nonetheless: she’s been detained at police headquarters by Major Calloway while they pore over her personal belongings. Interestingly, the cut from the previous scene (set at Anna’s apartment building) to this one does not initially offer us an establishing shot of the new space: before we are offered a chance to acclimate ourselves to these surroundings, director Carol Reed and editor Oswald Hafenrichter provide us with a medium-close up of unknown hands rifling through Anna’s effects. The audience is thus placed in a similar position as Anna: dislocated, confused, focused primarily on the faceless characters investigating her most private possessions.
Today, movie audiences might not be struck by the cut from a more distanced shot scale to a closer perspective: conditioned by the development of film language over about 120 years, we take for granted the ability for cinema to leap through space and time within 1/24th of a second. But at the birth of cinema, what other art form could instantaneously offer us intimate visual access to objects, allowing us to revel in their texture, their shapes, the way that light danced on and around its contours? True, still photography could offer us such close-ups (and by doing so could transform the objects therein into fetishized, larger-than-life icons), but it couldn’t transcend human perspective by cutting between a multitude of angles and distances. By mobilizing still photographs into a fluid stream of pseudo-reality, movies could somehow become more real than reality itself, violating the laws of physics and human sight, transforming and enshrining the landscapes and objects that surround us (and to which we usually pay little attention). Cinematic close-ups could also allow audiences to perceive the flicker of grain and the shimmering of light as it changed from frame to frame, an aesthetic delight borne out of the materiality of the film apparatus itself: not even in real life could light flicker and dance so entrancingly.
This meant that many early film theorists were hypnotized by the allure of cinematic close-ups; while some commentators and filmmakers were comparing film to the theater or to literature (mostly in the storytelling abilities that they shared), other theorists celebrated how cinema departed radically from those forms’ aesthetics precisely through its montage of various shot scales. As filmmakers like D.W. Griffith, Charles Chaplin, and Louis Feuillade employed close-ups with increasing frequency, theorists such as Lewis Jacobs, Sergei Eisenstein, and Louis Aragon championed their transformative capabilities. An entire book could be written on the increasing closeness of shot scales during the early years of cinema, but a few quotes should suffice here. In his 1939 book The Rise of the American Film, Lewis Jacobs recounted Griffith’s then-shocking decision to cut to a closer angle in the middle of a scene:
Griffith decided…upon a revolutionary step. He moved the camera closer to the actor, in what is now known as the full shot (a larger view of the actor), so that the audience could observe the actor’s pantomime more closely. No one before had thought of changing the position of the camera in the middle of a scene…
The next logical step was to bring the camera still closer to the actor in what is now called the close-up…
Going further than he had ventured before, in a scene showing [the character] Annie Lee brooding and waiting for her husband’s return [in the 1911 film Enoch Arden, aka After Many Years] Griffith daringly used a large close-up of her face.
Everyone in the Biograph studio was shocked. “Show only the head of a person? What will people say? It’s against all rules of movie making!” (1939, pps. 101-103)
In response to Gibson’s historical appraisal, Sergei Eisenstein—himself a filmmaker who knew the visceral and connotative power of the close-up—pondered the difference between an American and a Russian utilization of the technique. He concluded that the value of the close-up is “not only and not so much to show or to present, as to signify, to give meaning, to designate” (“Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today,” 1944; emphasis in original). Close-ups didn’t just astound audiences in their visual immediacy, but also because they granted overwhelming symbolic and emotional value in the objects or people that they magnified (especially, in Eisenstien’s estimation, through the juxtapositions of montage editing).
More examples abound, and they vary wildly in the specific value that the theorist associates with the close-up. On the one hand, you have psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud and Otto Fenichel who emphasize the fetishistic or scoptophilic nature of the close-up (or at least of symbolically significant objects). Fenichel, for example, in “The Scoptophilic Instinct and Identification,” suggests that the fixed gaze which observes an object from a nearby distance is libidinized: “the world does not approach the eye but the person looking makes an onslaught with his eye upon the world, in order to ‘devour’ it… The underlying tendency may be formulated as follows: ‘I wish what I see to enter into me.’ Now this certainly does not necessarily mean that the eye itself is thought of as the avenue of introjection… This process of ‘ocular introjection’…takes its place with oral, anal, epidermal, and respiratory introjection” (The Collected Papers of Otto Fenichel, 1954, 331, 330). Consuming an object or person in a close-up thus has an added erotic value, by which the viewer absorbs (or maybe more accurately is penetrated by) that which they’re looking at.
On the other hand, you have theorists who were more interested in the sheer visceral impact of a magnified object, most notably French Surrealists who lauded the oneiric qualities of objects/figures that were emblazoned within the close-up. Most effusive in this regard, perhaps, was Louis Aragon, who in his 1918 essay “On Décor” celebrated the cinematic appearance of modern consumer goods:
Before the appearance of the cinematograph hardly any artist dared use the false harmony of machines and the obsessive beauty of commercial inscriptions, posters, evocative lettering, really common objects, everything that celebrates life, not some artificial convention that excludes corned beef and tins of polish… Those letters advertising a make of soap are the equivalent of letters on an obelisk or the inscription in a book of spells: they describe the fate of an era. (Le Film, 1918)
By Aragon’s estimation, it is precisely the most mundane objects of modern commercialism—consumer goods, advertisements, products designed to be disposable—that attain mystery and beauty onscreen and encapsulate the modern age. (Aragon also implies here that the close-up itself was the shockingly new aesthetic technique that might be able to convey the turbulent transformations of modernity.) Obviously the onslaught of modern capitalism is closely aligned with Aragon’s theory, but he seems to embrace the transformative power of the close-up because it turns consumer products into so much more than they were originally intended for: icons imbued with great emotional and symbolic power.
It’s common sense to suggest that objects magnified via cinematic close-up attain great symbolic resonance, and there are numerous examples throughout film history: Chaplin’s transformation of ordinary objects into graceful comedic gags in The Vagabond, Pay Day, The Gold Rush, Modern Times, et al.; Citizen Kane‘s Rosebud; the Maltese Falcon itself; the gorgeous tracking shot of jewelry and clothing that opens The Earrings of Madame de…; a similar visual account of a character’s emblematic possessions during the opening credits of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes; even that damn ring in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series, accompanied as it always is by a plethora of hisses and incomprehensible cackling.
Today’s still from The Third Man isn’t technically a close-up, but obviously its intention is to convey the fact that many of Anna’s most prized belongings are now stuffed away in a drawer at police headquarters. Because this still is the first shot of a new scene in a totally new locale (as I mentioned before), it is imbued with even more symbolic weight than if it had been intercut into the scene after an establishing shot: for Anna and for the audience, these objects predominate the scene, at least implicitly. What’s more, they carry the visceral, emotional, and/or symbolic weight that our theorists mentioned before: Anna’s possessions, per Eisenstein, aren’t simply presented to us but carry meaning as well; they signify Anna’s past with Harry, a past that she can never reclaim. (Also like Eisenstein, these objects gain greater power through montage editing: the disorienting cut from one locale to another without providing us with the spatial awareness that most classical narrative films offer dictates our reaction.) On a psychoanalytic register (per Fenichel), these objects certainly carry an erotic value for Anna, as we can see whenever she clutches Harry’s letters close to her breast. It’s almost as though Anna wants to incorporate these things into her body so that they can commingle with her memories of Harry—the only way, it seems, in which she can continue living a life with him. And these objects, nondescript though they may seem at first glance (papers, passports, jewelry boxes, etc.), describe not only Anna’s and Harry’s fate but also “the fate of an era” (as Aragon would say) as they point towards the tense postwar climate in Vienna, ruled as it is by covert black-market dealings and a pervasive military bureaucracy. For now, these objects are melancholy, poignant reminders for Anna of the happiness she once knew. Later in the movie, though, the significance of objects as mere goods to be bought and sold in a capitalist enterprise becomes altogether more sinister and disheartening, the diametric opposite of the love letters and trinkets currently under Major Calloway’s lock and key.
Over the absolute length of one year — two times per week — Still Dots will grab a frame every 62 seconds of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. This project will run until December 2012, when we finish at second 6324. For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.